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Understanding ‘Sustainability’

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

Understanding ‘Sustainability’

The World Wide Fund (WWF) has provided an opportunity in this area to achieve sustainability and profit in business. All buyers of palm oil can join a group called Roundtable on sustainable palm oil (RSPO)...

Understanding ‘Sustainability’

Thinking Point

Laxmi Goparaju and Sudhanshu Kumar

(Vindhyan Ecology and Natural History Foundation, Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh) 

The present era is witnessing the havoc of global warming and climate change. Hot summers, irregular rainfall, melting of arctic ice, etc reflect the changing scenario. The factors responsible for this are rapid industrialization, urbanization, forest degradation, depletion of natural resources, and many more unsustainable practices. In pursuit of sustainability and sustainable development, the policies, rules, and regulations are leading us towards a more unsustainable and devastating world. The concept or issue of sustainability has been less understood, though it was recognized as early as 1980. A thorough knowledge and clear understanding of this theme is necessary for a positive approach towards saving the Earth and avoiding environmental catastrophes.

Sustainability: What does it mean?

In 1972, there was a United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which changed the thinking of industrialized and developing countries from simply taking mitigation measures to stop the destruction of natural resources to integrating environmental concerns with economic growth and development. Developing nations are striving hard to improve their standard of living by promoting economic activity.

     Further, in 1987 the concept of sustainable development was taken to the forefront and it received international attention through its endorsement in the report by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Thus, the concept of sustainable development has become a major challenge of the present times. WCED has defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without limiting the potential to meet the needs of future generations. It addresses two major points: Awareness of needs - particularly giving utmost priority to the needs of the world’s poor. The realization: meeting needs is limited by the state of technology and social organizations.

     Who are the teachers of sustainability or guide us to live a sustainable life? They are the village people, local people, and tribal. People inhabiting villages near the forests, mostly tribals of various cultures depend totally on natural resources like forests for their livelihood. They practice agriculture, grazing, and collection of minor forest produce. Forest produce is sufficient to meet their requirements and they look upon it as their provider. Thus, the basic idea of leading a sustainable life can be learned from them. They teach us not to destroy the existing natural resources and utilize their produce for a living.

Sustainability and sustainable development: How do these terms differ?

There is a marked difference between the two. Sustainability implies an impractical, vague goal that fails to achieve what it wishes to, thus directly conflicts with human efforts to improve its social and material status. Sustainability is inherently more subjective. Sustainable development, on the other hand, emphasizes goals that favour social over economic capital. It is a dynamic process of improvement of the relationship between mankind and nature by conserving natural capital and enhancing developmental activities.

     The present-day unsustainable trends in society like overconsumption and overpopulation have coerced the world to think about sustainable issues on a global scale. All experiments that address sustainability should be carried out at small scales initially and further extrapolated to larger, global scales for good results.

     Sustainable development of natural resources implies maintaining a fragile balance between productivity practices and conservation approaches through the identification of problem areas and suggesting alternative approaches. Haines (1992) describes sustainable development as achieving an acceptable balance between economic development and environmental protection. Neither of them can be ignored to achieve sustainability. The Food and Agriculture Organization (1989) describes sustainable development as the management and conservation of natural resource base and the orientation of technology and institutional changes in such a manner as to ensure the attainment and continued satisfaction of human needs for the present and future generations.

Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA)

There is a link between environment, business, and sustainable development. There is a lesser-known and discussed concept of sustainability impact assessment (SIA) introduced by the European community. The journey of SIA began as early as 1999, with the European Commission, within Europe and other countries involved in trade agreements. The SIA methodology identifies certain indicators that need to be evaluated in the course of a detailed study. These are primarily:

1. Economic impacts: real income, fixed capital formation, employment.
2. Social impacts: poverty, health and education.
3. Environmental impacts: Biodiversity, environmental quality, natural resource stock.

     The difference between environmental impact assessment (EIA) and Sustainability Impact Assessment (SIA) is that EIA is prepared after a proposal is conceptualized. It analyzes social, environmental, and economic aspects compares them with baseline factors, and then determines whether the impacts are acceptable or not. In its execution, it tries to minimize the negative impacts and reduce unsustainable practices. Its implications should be made transparent to both the public and government. It fails to address sustainability as a societal goal. This is a recent theory, lacks practical applications, and is still in budding stage. It takes up the issue of whether or not a particular proposal or an initiative is sustainable. It can be analyzed for existing projects as well as those which are newly conceived. At times, proposals have been given government clearances despite clear environment detriment. 

Sustainability hazards: Most of the carbon mitigation programmes were intended to bring down global carbon levels. Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) which came into existence since the Kyoto Protocol, adopted by the third conference of the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (December 11, 1997, under Article 12). They failed to achieve what they were meant for. The reason was priority being given to economic benefits rather than ecological benefits. Example: Industrial tree plantations in South African countries like Norway and Tanzania have gained importance in recent years promising to provide timber and raw material for the paper industry. They are monoculture plantations and do not resemble real forests in any aspect. Economic impact: More unemployment as locals are not trained to carry out industrial activities. Seldom does the common man get his share of the profit. Economic instability leads to migration. Land use is threatened.
Social impacts: The sufferers are the local people, whose land has been taken from them forcibly. Rural communities are displaced and have no rehabilitation. Their life-sustaining activities like small-scale farming and rearing cattle are threatened.
Environmental impact: They destroy the biodiversity of the area, including food and medicinal plants. Habitats for plants and animals are destroyed. Alien and invasive species outnumber the local or indigenous species posing a threat to the ecosystem. Groundwater is polluted and depleted because many monoculture species like Eucalyptus require plenty of water for their growth. Grasslands are wiped off to establish industrial plantations, which cannot provide a home to several indigenous plant and animal species.

What made it to be low in sustainable development?

CDM and REDD had dual objectives to be fulfilled, firstly to cut down carbon and greenhouse gas emissions; and secondly to encourage sustainable development in the host country. In due course of time, due to the lack of a poor international sustainable agenda and competitive market; the first objective was easy to accomplish which is a cost-effective reduction in greenhouse gases. Sutter and Parreno (2007) analyzed 16 projects registered under the CDM by August 2005. Their results show that most of the projects fulfill either of the two objectives. Less than 1% contributed to sustainable development of the host country and no project was able to fulfill both the objectives of CDM. The moral of the story is economic benefits were given priority at the cost of environmental degradation.    Many companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, Tesco, Carrefour, Nestle, and Unilever are committed to using sustainable palm oil for their products. Why so?

     The World Wide Fund (WWF) has provided an opportunity in this area to achieve sustainability and profit in business. All buyers of palm oil can join a group called Roundtable on sustainable palm oil (RSPO). It is an internationally recognized trademark, which brings palm oil growers, oil processors, manufacturers, retailers, and palm oil investors on one platform that has a single goal of promoting sustainable palm oil. The RSPO has set up strict rules and regulations like the prohibition of conversion of tropical forests for the sake of plantation, protection measures for the native flora and fauna, ensuring good environmental health, minimizing air and water pollution, no child labour involvement,  an independent body to monitor and audit the mills and the plantations and all other chain processes linked with the industry. Such a step would ensure fruitful legal business, reduced environmental problems, and enhanced social welfare. Many industries are aiming at integrating sustainability practices into their business.

What does sustainability reporting mean?

A sustainability report incorporates all information about economic, social, and environmental governance. From the perspective of companies and corporations, sustainability implies the capacity to endure and maintain itself. The present era is seeing a trend of sustainability reporting, which provides a platform to identify and communicate the negative and positive impacts. It is a step taken towards long-term survival with societal and environmental harmony.

Sustainable Development Goals 2030

Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its 17 SDGs was adopted to continue the efforts of Millennium Development Goals in a better way at the UN Sustainable Development Summit in New York in September 2015 by all participating Nations.

The 17 global agenda for 2030 are: 

1. No poverty
2. Zero hunger
3. Good health and well-being
4. Quality education
5. Gender equality
6. Clean water and sanitation
7. Affordable and clean energy
8. Decent work and economic growth
9. Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
10. Reducing inequality
11. Sustainable cities and communities
12. Responsible consumption and production
13. Climate action
14. Life below water
15. Life on land
16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions
17. Partnerships for the goals

     These goals have been selected and arranged in such a fashion that initiation of a step towards one goal will seamlessly lead to achieving the next goal. SDGs provide a common agenda for peace and prosperity identifying, and ending poverty and other shortcomings that must be tackled together while working on climate change mitigation and other concurrent issues of conserving and protecting the environment.

Indicators of Sustainable Development Goals

United Nations has adopted a global indicator framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for follow-up and reviewing. Earlier, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) acknowledged the important role that indicators could play in helping countries make informed decisions regarding sustainable development. These indicators are prepared to detail for the inclusion of a wider section by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location, or other characteristics, which can be rearranged for self-assessment the by the participating country.

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